He was once described as 'a modern George Washington'
Imagine a world in which Bush-era Republicans retired at 60.
Before the administration of George W. Bush, America’s most destructive president, Donald Rumsfeld would have been the youngest Secretary of Defense in history, White House Chief of Staff, Middle East envoy, a successful businessman and a would-be president.
Meanwhile, Colin Powell, a working class, Jamaican-American kid from Harlem turned war hero, would have seen out his time as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and national security advisor during a successful war (Iraq I).
Dick Cheney… would still be Dick Cheney. But it was Powell, who died today of Covid complications, who stood out above the rest as one of the most highly regarded men in Washington. If the country’s first black secretary of state had hung it up in the late 1990’s, he would have retired an unabashed hero.
In fact, Powell’s stock was running so high that in 1996, the first black president might have been a Republican. Clinton was beaten badly in the 1994 midterms and the Republicans needed a charismatic standard-bearer to finish him off. “The country will be looking for a man of a certain character,” Republican kingmaker William J. Bennet told Powell. “We’re always playing out some version of George Washington, the indispensable man. …And you’re him, you know. If there’s a modern Washington, you’re him”.
But dashing the hopes of the GOP, Powell chose not to run.
Years later, Powell became a key figure in the George W. Bush administration, serving as Secretary of State from 2001-2005. His infamous address to the United Nations in early 2003 — at the urging of his administration colleagues, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Defense honcho Paul Wolfowitz, among others — will forever mar his record. As the man with the greatest crossover appeal in the Bush administration, Powell did the sales job for a war he privately had great reservations about.
Powell, in public, made the case with a calculated politician’s passion, arguing that the absence of evidence was no evidence of absence. “Tell me, answer me,” the then-Secretary of State told the U.N. Security Council, “are the inspectors to search the house of every government official, every Baath Party member and every scientist in the country to find the truth, to get the information they need, to satisfy the demands of our council?”
Powell’s self-defence years later, in 2016, that the address was “a great intelligence failure” didn’t cut it, any more than Tony Blair’s insistence that year that “I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever believe” will save him from the judgement of history. I’ve had the occasion to know folks in Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz’s orbit, and to them, Powell is the real villain because he didn’t really believe, but plunged ahead anyway. It’s an extremist’s view, but it’s not without a point.
As the late journalist Mark Perry told Harper’s in 2010:
There were administration officials who were ousted over policy differences in those bad, dangerous days of the early 2000’s, such as Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, who denounced the Iraq war pretty much in real time.
At the moment of his greatest testing, Colin Powell was not one of them — and alongside his accomplishments and virtues, that will always be remembered.